The Ultimate Fighting Championship has entered a new era.
It is an era when championship fighters can almost be expected to seek out the most lucrative bouts available or look for opportunities to obtain multiple championships in different divisions.
We have Conor McGregor to thank for this, of course. It was McGregor who single-handedly detonated the UFC's pay scale, and McGregor who held enough power that the company was forced to acquiesce to his demands for a shot at a championship in a second weight class. The UFC went along with this because McGregor is a cash cow, and it is in the promotion's best interests to keep him happy.
But chasing superfights and multiple titles has become the new normal. The days when a fighter would win a belt and then purposefully defend it against one deserving challenger after another now seem quaint. The new modus operandi is to win a belt and then immediately seek fortune and history.
And then there's Max Holloway, who might just be the new all-time featherweight king after he defeated Brian Ortega via TKO in four rounds at UFC 231 in Toronto on Saturday.
Holloway is a throwback to the days of old, when a champion's to-do list did not include calling out the titleholder of a different weight class. Holloway wrested the UFC featherweight belt from Jose Aldo (another champion who repeatedly defended his belt against the next man up) and then planted his flag firmly atop the mountain, challenging any featherweight who dared step forward. His eyes are focused sharply on keeping his throne and establishing a legacy, brick by brick, piece by piece.
And after his UFC 231 win over the wildly durable and courageous Ortega, Holloway is well on his way to cementing that legacy.
The bout was a sublime bit of matchmaking—the sort of thing hardcore fight fans salivate over and dream about and cross their fingers in hopes it'll end up happening. Fans of this sport learn to accept disappointment; it goes with the territory. Major fights fall through all the time—as this exact matchup did at UFC 226 in July—and vanish into the atmosphere. As Holloway says, it is what it is.
But this one materialized, came right up out of our dreams and became a real thing. And boy, did it ever deliver.
Holloway earned the win when the ringside doctor ruled Ortega was unable to continue after the fourth round. It was a frame that saw Ortega battered and punished far more than any human being could reasonably withstand. Ortega had mounted something of a comeback after Holloway surged to an early lead. There were fleeting moments where it seemed Ortega might have damaged Holloway, that he might be capable of stealing the gold just when "The Pride of Hawaii" looked like an easy victor.
But before the fourth round, Holloway turned to UFC commentator Joe Rogan and told him he would finish Ortega in the next frame.
He called his shot. And then he delivered.
And then, as he always does, Holloway demanded to know who was next. He demurred when Rogan asked if he would leave featherweight behind. Holloway might have played it coy on this night, but it seems outlandish to think he won't eventually move up for new challenges, especially given his proclivity for dispatching top featherweight contenders with ease. When he does, it will only be after one of the great runs atop a division in UFC history.
And what of Ortega? He lost, but it was a star-making performance. Ortega stood firm against Holloway's early onslaught, clawed his way back into the fight, and then refused to give in when it was clear Holloway had turned the corner and was sprinting violently to the finish line. His left eye was nearly closed from swelling, his face a crimson mask, and yet Ortega stood and valiantly fought back.
It was the sort of gritty, determined performance that endears athletes to fans even in a loss.
Ortega will be back. He'll likely be back in there against Holloway, someday. It's hard to imagine these two men in a scenario where they don't end up back in the Octagon together, sharing another 20 or so minutes of glory. There is nobody else in the featherweight division who seems capable of beating Holloway at his best. Ortega may not be able to do it, even given five more chances. Five more outings like this one against Holloway would not be good for his long-term health.
But for now, we can bask in the afterglow of a fight that, for once, ended up being exactly what we all dreamed it could be.